Ride Story: Dashing Through the Trails 25 2019

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photo by Susan Kordish, AZ Cowgirl Photography

As my previous post detailed, I’ve got some winter plans at work. Atti, whom I rode at McDowell 75 in 2017, and at Man Against Horse 50 this past October, is hanging out with me for a couple of months for “winter training camp,” and if all goes well, the goal is the 20 Mule Team 100 in February.

Well, it didn’t take long for plans to change. Right out the chute, we went from the planned 50 at Dashing Through the Trails down to the 25, due to a combination of factors:

  • Cristina had taken him to another desert LD the previous weekend, where he got some good sand and trot/canter work (which is the main goal of him being down here)…but we also didn’t want to chuck too much at him all at once.
  • For my part, about a week and half prior to the ride, I stepped off my sidewalk curb and onto a pine cone, falling and rolling my ankle hard. Some aggressive wrapping, taping, TENS unit treatments, and copious applications of arnica had the swelling down in fairly short order, but it was still tender, and I was suspicious of how well it would hold up to 50 miles.

With all of that in mind, and having done this ride last year and knowing it wouldn’t be an easy ride, it was decided to err on the side of opting for the LD. Atti has a good base on him, so my main goal is to find that fine line between taking his conditioning up to the next level, but not beating him up too much.

I was actually looking forward to a fun LD, too. It’s been over 3 years since I’d last done one…and half a dozen years since I finished one. I feel like that topic is worth an entire post unto itself, so I’ll table my thoughts on that for now and leave it at “crap happens at every level of distance riding, whether it’s an LD or a 100.”

Part of Atti being down here is also having Atti’s trailer down here…so Friday morning, for the first time in like 9 years, I was once again in the position of hitching up and heading to the ride in my albeit-temporary own rig. (Which just really cements my desire to have my own trailer again…so if anyone knows anyone selling a lightweight, 2-horse, safe/well-maintained, bumper pull trailer, in or close to AZ, for a reasonable $ and preferably willing to take payments…talk to me. Not that I’m asking for much on that list.)

It wasn’t without a few shenanigans, including not having the right electrical hook-up adapter between the trailer and my truck. Fortunately there’s an auto parts store just a couple miles away from the barn (I was grateful for being in the middle of suburbia in that instance), and they were able to set me up with what I needed.

Estrella is a local ride — about an hour and half to an hour and forty-five minutes away, depending on traffic and time of day — and I was in camp by early afternoon, with plenty of time to set up, do some socializing, check in, get Atti vetted, pack my crew bag, and tack up and go for a short leg stretch ride.

I was able to spend some time catching up with a few friends during the ride dinner that evening, and then the ride briefing gave us our need-to-knows of the trail overview, start times (7:30am), hold times (45 minutes on the LD), and pulse criteria (60 all day). I took Atti for a brief evening stroll afterwards, hauled my crew bag over to the drop-off point, then settled into the cozy nest I had made for myself in the back of the Suburban.

With a 7:30 ride start, I was able to sleep until just before 5, and it actually wasn’t too chilly when I got up. Atti got breakfast first, then I got myself ready for the day and worked on my own coffee and breakfast. Atti was not happy when the 50s left, and we were still hanging out at the trailer…much dirt excavating happened.

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All dressed up and raring to go…

He was also quite ready to hit the trail, and I had to keep him moving in constant walking circles as we waited for the start…if I would stop to chat with anyone, he would start pawing, or backing up. So we walked circles, and worked on leg yielding.

The first mile to the actual trail is a paved road through the park, so we had a controlled start out of camp following the ride manager behind one of the park trucks, and then she turned us loose once we hit the actual start of the trail. It was one of those cases that once the first half a dozen people headed out, there wasn’t a huge rush to leave, and people were sort of hanging back…so I took advantage of the space bubble and headed out.

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Susan Kordish photo

We did some major “negotiations” for the first several miles — he knew there were horses ahead, and every so often, we would hit a spot on trail where he could see them below us, or on a rise out in the distance, and he was in “hunt” mode. But my job as the brains of the operation is to know what we still have ahead of us, and to not let him play Superman, just because he thinks he can. For 14 hands of pony power, he’s amazingly strong, and I had flashbacks to the days of riding Mimi…although he doesn’t drop his head and lean on the bridle the way she did (and still does).

For the first half a dozen miles, I worked on keeping him to a steady pace. Walking any ups and downs, and really rocky bits, but otherwise, maintaining his comfortable trot pace.

Once we reached the back side of the park, some of the trails turn into beautiful areas to move out, and I started incorporating some canter work in as the trail permitted. We had our own space bubble, and although he was still wanting to go, Atti had definitely settled and was doing a good job of listening to my requests.

Around 8 miles in, we reached the first water stop and check-point. He drank, ate a few bites of hay, I electrolyted him, mounted back up, and headed out again for a 6-mile segment that would loop around and bring us back to the water stop. The couple-minute stop had been the final step in really getting his brain settled, and he was a really good boy for the next section. The majority of it was still really good footing, so I was able to set a really consistent pace.

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On the “Homestead” loop

Back around at the water, he dove into the trough and drank like a fish, then I handed him off to one of the ride volunteers to munch on some hay while I darted off behind a bush to recycle the morning coffee. Another half-dose of e’lytes for him (he’s on the “small and frequent doses” protocol), and we were on our way again, this time heading to the vet-check at 19 miles.

We passed through the good footing section again, this time sharing it as a two-way trail with the 50-milers, who had done a 10-mile loop to start before joining the same 19-mile segment of trail as the LD. Atti was a little confused with the horses going the opposite direction — “Home is this way…but the herd is going that way???”

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This section had a lot more rocks and areas of rough footing, but Atti’s got a nice walk on him, and he has a good sense of what is considered trottable or not, and it wasn’t very often I had to request for him to slow down and walk.

The last mile into the check is a wide gravel road…so tempting to use to “make up time” because it’s smooth, and good footing…but the upcoming vet check kept that notion curtailed, and we cruised at an easy trot, pausing just outside the check where management had set out water troughs to drink, dismount, and unbridle before walking into the check. He was at 44 when we arrived and got our pulse.

Once we were pulsed, I got him settled with a buffet of feed and hay, and took management up on their offer of a sandwich…that egg salad was absolutely delicious.

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Vet check buffet. Getting the signature “eat $h!* and die” look from Atti because I had the nerve to put food in front of him. And I hadn’t even electrolyted him yet.

The vet likes to wait about 30 minutes into our hold time before seeing the horses, to give them a “come down” from any on-trail adrenaline, as well as the chance for any issues that might be lurking to crop up. He vetted through with all A’s, and after that, I had enough time to wrap everything up, swap to his hackamore, and be mounted up and waiting for my out-time.

We scampered out of the check as soon as we were released (and a brief moment of confusion again for Atti when we had to pass by other riders who were coming into the check…he thought we should follow them versus venturing out into the desert by ourselves to get eaten) but he quickly locked back onto the trail and started motoring along…merrily side-eyeing every downed/dead cactus along the way.

A few miles out from camp, we were caught by my friend Jen, and we ended up riding in together, spending some time catching up with each other’s lives. The last couple miles out, she went in front of us and Atti turned into a fire-breathing dragon…he knows and has trained with Jen’s horse up in Prescott, and he was not amused with being left behind. I had also grabbed my s-hackamore that has a flat curb strap on it versus the curb chain, knowing that in the past, he’s always been easy to rate and could probably be ridden in a halter.

Uhhhh…flat curb strap privileges revoked, as we went back into “negotiations” mode after he thought blasting down the side of the hill at an extended trot was actually a good idea. We made our way back down at my pace, caught up with Jen at the water trough at the bottom, Atti drank, and then we walked the last mile along the road into camp.

Atti was down right away, and once we pulsed in, it turned out we ended up finishing in 6th place, in a ride time of 3:39. We also stood for BC, even though the early finishers had some time on us…it’s a really good learning experience, especially for a horse who doesn’t particularly see the point of in-hand trot-outs.

It took me a bit to get everything wrapped up and packed up again, so Atti had several hours of recovery before loading up and heading back to the barn later that afternoon.

I was really pleased with how the ride went. My major goal going in to the ride was to work on a steady, consistent pace, and ride the horse and the course to the best of our abilities — use the good footing to the best of our abilities, and be conservative on the sketchy areas. Don’t waste time, ride smart. I have struggled for years to learn how to pace well at rides, and it’s pretty much been the last year or two that I’ve felt like I’m finally getting a better sense for it, and I was really proud of how that came together at this ride.

Gear rundown:

Frank Baines endurance-dressage saddle
Archer Equine saddle pad
Mohair girth
Zilco Halter-Bridle and Breastcollar
Fager bit, model ‘John‘ (I am in love with these bits)
Flex-Ride stirrups (need to switch back to the EZ Rides, my feet were going numb)
Bare Equestrian tights

I’ve started using drench syringes (30cc for in the saddle, 50cc for in camp) and mixing my own e’lytes again. It worked really well to use a soft flask to carry the mix in my saddle pack, and for longer rides, I can refill the flask at checks as needed between loops. Atti is a brat to e’lyte (he’s not the only one…starting with my own pony…) and the drench syringes are so much easier to work with than trying to wrangle with the large, bulky syringes, especially with his smaller mouth. He also readily spits out more of the solid e’lytes, so mixing them in a more runny consistency made it harder for him to spit out a gooey blob.

My ankle didn’t bother me (wasn’t any more sore after we finished than when we started) but I also didn’t get off and run at all.

I feel like we’ve got a solid base to work with, and the ride helped get some little detailed dialed in, so it’s still onward and upward, moving forward with our plans and training.

A huge thank you to Effee Conner and her family for putting this ride on again! The trails were a great mix of technical and fun, ride dinner Friday night was yummy, the Ride With GPS app in conjunction with trail marking was spot-on, and i had an absolutely delightful day out there! So glad to have more and more local rides on the calendar to support!

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Susan Kordish photo

 

The 2010s Picture Challenge

This is kind of a fun challenge going around blog-land right now…ONE picture per year for the last decade. That’s a cool way to wrap up the decade.

2010

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Mimi’s last competition year…she did her last ride in February of that year.

2011

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A rough year, after Beamer, the trailer, and the truck all went to new homes thanks to a rapidly-crumbling economy.

2012

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The start of my job with Renegade…will be going into year 9 this upcoming January.

2013

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The major start of my catch-riding. 4 different horses ridden this year, and eight rides attended, the most I’d ever done in one year.

2014

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The year I started trail running. I’m currently in a “not running much” stage, mostly because I don’t have the same burning love and drive to make it happen that I have for horses and endurance riding…am pretty much content to do a few miles with my dogs and call it good…but this was a good outlet for getting out on trails and still doing some kind of competition when I wasn’t riding much.

2015

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The year I finally went to the Grand Canyon…and saw it in epic style, via a 3-day backpacking trip to from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and back.

2016

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Tahoe Rim ride…such a beautiful ride, and a very much needed completion and reminder that I still loved endurance.

2017

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First 100-miler (attempt, at least…)! Might sound weird to call a ride the “best pull ever” but it was truly an epic endeavor and great experience.

2018

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The year of Flash, aka “my favorite horse in the world aside from my own pony.”

2019

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Got Mimi out on trail more this year than I have in probably the last half a dozen years, and it was really nice to see the world between her fluffy little fox ears again.

Project Ridgecrest

Well, if all goes according to plan, I should be kept rather busy and out of trouble for at least the first few months on the 2020 ride season.

Back in the fall, Cristina asked me if I would be willing to take Atti to 20 Mule Team and do his first 100 there. After contemplating it a bit, I agreed, and we hatched a plan that involved her keeping Atti down here at the same place Mimi is boarded so that I can give him some more “desert-type” of conditioning with more sand and long-trotting work.

Yesterday, Atti arrived at “winter training camp.” Most of the herd was like, “oh, new horse? Ok, cool, whatever.” Mimi, however, is quite curious about him, which is fairly rare for my normally-antisocial pony. We’ll see how long the honeymoon lasts before she starts sneering at him, but given that she is so jealous and possessive of me working other horses that it would help if she does like him.

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It’s like looking in a mirror.

I will do a couple of local rides with him — 50 miles at Dashing Through the Trails at Estrella Mountain Park this upcoming weekend, and the Tonto Twist 50 in Apache Junction in January — with some conditioning rides in-between, as well as some cross-training arena work, leading up to the 20 Mule Team 100 in February.

If you’ve followed the blog for a while, you’ll recognize Atti from the McDowell 75 in 2017, and the Man Against Horse 50 in 2019. I’ve had a couple of good rides, and good training rides, on him. He’s a fun little horse, and I’m very honored and flattered that Cristina is putting this level of faith and trust in me with her heart pony.

I recently saw a friend use the hashtag #2020Vision on an Instagram story about future plans/goals. I think that’s particularly clever, and I have it written down as my theme for this upcoming year. It’s nice to start the season and year with some early goals, and then stay pretty flexible and open-ended beyond that point.

Ride Story: Man Against Horse 50 2019

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photo by John Kordish

Man Against Horse will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first AERC ride, the LD back in 2005. It’s also a tough, challenging ride, especially the 50-miler. Historically, I’ve gone up against the 50 three times…and finished once. Perversely, I still love this ride, and the challenge makes me all the more determined to conquer it.

So I was pleased to be offered a ride for the 50-miler this year when Cristina reached out to me to see if I was available and interested in riding Atti. I did the 75 at McDowell on him two years ago and had a great ride — he’s a safe, fun, go-getter little guy, and as a bonus, trains regularly on many of the Man Against Horse trails, so this would be his home turf.

Friday late morning saw me chucking my gear and some food into my truck, then zipping up the highway a couple hours north to Prescott Valley to pick up Cristina’s trailer and Atti. Now, I haven’t had a trailer since 2011, and prior to that, we had the big truck, so my suburban hasn’t had to do any trailer hauling duty for probably at least a decade, so there were more than a few muttered “please let me make it to camp” prayers after I hitched up and headed down the road. (Pleased that I have lost none of my vehicle aligning/trailer hitching skills, even if it was a comedy of errors to get the right hitch dialed in.) I only had a 20-minute, mostly flat and easy drive in which to contemplate brewing an ulcer though, and we made it into camp with no issues.

Troy and Claire had saved me a parking spot in camp, so I didn’t have to do the typical avoidance run of “don’t park in the middle of a rock pile or cactus patch” that someones comes with the territory of camping in the middle of a cow pasture. This was probably the most “on my own” I’ve been at a ride since retiring Mimi, and selling the truck and trailer, but I quickly fell back into doing my thing.

One thing catch riding has definitely done has been to knock off a lot of my uptight, control freak rough edges, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten pretty laid back and settled about the whole production, especially Friday afternoons before the ride. I used to be ridiculously neurotic about “OMG EVERYTHING HAS TO GET DONE AND THIS HAS TO HAPPEN AND…AND…AND…” and if I wasn’t right on top of things, or I didn’t check in right away or didn’t vet as soon as vetting started, it was grounds for a nervous meltdown. I recognize a lot of that for the nerves and inexperience that it was, but with catch riding, and operating more off of so many other people’s schedules, it’s really taught me some valuable flexibility, going with the flow, and that the world doesn’t end if things don’t fall 100% in accordance with The Schedule of Ashley.

So I got Atti settled and my little camp set up, socialized and blew off some mental steam (I love my endurance family, just putting that out there), checked in, socialized a bit more, got Atti’s saddle all set up, vetted in with no drama (all As, and a smart little trot-out), then tacked up and headed out for a short pre-ride. Had to fuss with the stirrup length at one point, but other than that, we were ready to roll the next morning. Back at camp, I tucked Atti in front of his dinner, then rounded up my homemade blueberry crisp and headed over to a potluck dinner gathering before ride briefing.

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afternoon pre-ride

I’ve done this ride half a dozen times prior…3 years of the LD, 3 years of the 50. The trail doesn’t change, vet checks are the same, pink ribbons on your right. 6:30am start for the 50, 30 minute hold at vet check 1, 45 minute hold at vet check 2, pulse-n-go at vet check 3. Pulse parameters of 60 all day. One thing I should mention for anyone not familiar with this ride — it’s called Man Against Horse for a reason — riders and their horses are sharing the trail and competing with runners. Just like the ride, there is a 12/25/50 mile run distance offered. It’s a super-unique thing, with only a couple of rides in the world offering it that I’m aware of (the Vermont 100/Moonlight in Vermont on the east coast, and a Man Against Horse in the UK). Because of my handful of years of dabbling in trail running, I have friends both riding and running, so it’s a fun merging of two of my worlds.

Post-briefing, I checked Atti, settled him in with a warmer blanket and more hay, packed the last few things in my crew bag — all I needed to add was my food/lunch in the morning — then retired to the comfy sofa bed Claire had offered. (My endurance family spoils me.)

As typical for pre-ride nights, sleep was a little bit elusive, and I felt like I drifted in and out all night, but at some point, I must have fallen asleep, because I was rudely awoken by my 4am “get up and feed Atti” alarm. Crawled out of bed, loaded him up with some more hay and a dose of electrolytes, put my riding clothes on…and then crawled back into bed for another hour. By 5:15, I was fully up, mainlining my precious cup of coffee (ride mornings, I reluctantly limit my caffeine-addicted self to one cup) and stuffing in some breakfast before doing my final crew bag last-minute packing and hauling it over to the truck that would take it to the vet checks. This ride is one of the few remaining “single loop” courses, so all the vet checks are out  along the trail and you don’t come back to camp until the finish.

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ride map

Atti was saddled, and my butt was in the saddle a good 20 minutes before the start, checking in with ride management, and giving Atti some warm-up time. He was really “up” for him — this ride is very high energy at the start, with an en masse shotgun start of horses and runners all taking off, in and out of a rocky wash and then up a wide, gentle uphill grade. “Wild” is often the kindest way to describe the annual start line antics, and it can set off even the best-behaved horses. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see Atti transform into a bit of a “I’m Superman, let me fly” attitude.

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pre-start…he’s the cutest little guy

My friend Taylor and I had made plans to at least start together for some moral support and “don’t let me die” safety in numbers. We ended up going out a couple minutes after everyone else, dealt with some shenanigans for the first half-mile or so, and then it was smooth sailing, and by the time we hit a few miles in, both boys were cruising along.

The first 9 miles is a pretty smooth cruise — a few miles of sand wash, some gentle rolling hills, mostly double-track road through grassy plains. At mile 9, the trail changes to single-track, and more of the climbing starts. “The Grapevine” dips in and out of a sandy/rocky streambed at the bottom of a canyon, and it’s one of my favorite sections of trail, especially on a handy little mountain goat. We traded off leading for a bit, then put Atti in the lead, and he scampered through this section. He’s surefooted and nimble, and flies over narrow single-track without batting an eye. After a few miles, the trail turns out of the streambed and starts climbing, up through stands of manzanita and scrub oak, and opens up to views out towards Prescott Valley and Prescott beyond.

On the way up to the vet check, we saw photographers Susan and John Kordish, who got fantastic pics as always.

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photo by Susan Kordish

In to vet check 1 right about 9, which was absolutely perfect and right on track with my rough internal timeclock I had in mind for ride times/goals. Atti took a big drink when we got in, and was pulsed down by the time he finished drinking. I had an absolutely lovely surprise coming into the check — Claire was waiting to crew for me! Troy had already come in to the check, and left just before I came in, and Claire stayed to give me a hand. Like I said, I’m so spoiled, and very thankful…I was not expecting crew at all, and it was delightful to have an extra set of hands, or to be able to hand his reins over and briefly sit down and take care of myself for a few minutes.

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super-flattering mid-shake…which he also likes to do under saddle

Atti’s vet scores were good — a couple of Bs on hydration parameters, but everything else As, and he’d been drinking well so far. Before heading out, I switched him over to his hackamore, electrolyted him, mounted up and we were out of there right on time. The next section of the ride is a lot of forest roads. A couple miles of some interesting quasi-cross-country  and some zippy little single-track bits, but for the most part, lots of lots of dirt road. The longest stretch is about a 9-mile section. It’s very rocky, tends to be slow-going, and a very good section of trail to share with a buddy. Atti and Taylor’s gelding Mouss were still pacing well together, so our plan was to stick together as long as the boys were happy, and it really took the potential doldrums out of this section. Sure, we whined about the rocks, but did a lot of laughing, and I’m pretty sure we chatted non-stop for a solid 48 out of 50 miles.

The “highlight” of the 50 is the climb up Mingus Mountain to vet check 2 — a roughly 1800′ elevation gain in about 3 miles, on single-rack that can have some steep, technical, or steep and technical sections. Before starting the climb, we paused for a few minutes at the checkpoint and water stop strategically placed just before it. There was some fresh green mountain grass growing, enough for some good grazing time and fortification before tackling the climb.

It starts innocuous enough. Narrow singletrack, but a gradual grade. And then it turns interesting real quick, with some sharp turns and steep step-ups. I hopped off Atti on a couple of sections to give him a break — at 13.3, he’s not a big guy, and I’m about 20 pounds more than what he’s used to carrying, so I was doing everything I could to make it easier for him. We were also at about 6000′ elevation at that point, so that’s always super-fun for this flatlander desert rat to try to breathe and hike up a climb at the same time.

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before the tough climbing started

Fortunately the climb levels out partway through, so there’s a chance for some easy walking recovery before the second part of the climb, and a ton of grass growing along the trail, so Atti worked diligently on perfecting his grab-n-go grazing skills. The second part of the climb also has some interesting “rock stairstep” sections that are a little technical, so I hopped off again, lead through a couple of them, then let Atti go ahead and tailed off of him for some of the steeper uphill climbing portions. Finally, after a few more switchbacks, we reached the top of the mountain. It was about a mile of easy forest road into the check, and after walking/climbing that much, it felt really good to let him out and easy trot down the road.

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about halfway there — we’re heading to the top where all the trees are. this is my favorite photo spot because the leaves are always starting to change.

Coming into the check, I hopped off and walked the last little bit in, let him drink (and drink, and drink) and by the time he was done, he was pulsed down. We were in a little before 1, so still right within the time frame I had expected, especially given how rocky the trail was this year. Claire and Taylor’s mom Luci had set up our crew bags for us in a nice spot, and after getting Atti settled in front of his hay and pan of grain, I just plopped myself right down on the ground next to him and proceeded to tuck into my own lunch.

There had been a line for the vet when we first came in and pulsed down, so I gave Atti some time to eat first, and once the vet line cleared up, headed over for our check. Again, some Bs on hydration parameters, but all As everywhere else and vet said he looked great. We still had a bit of time before our out-time, so back in front of the food for both of us for a few more minutes before wrapping up the crew bag, electrolyting, and mounting up.

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photo by Susan Kordish

Heading out from the check, the first couple miles of trail is lovely — single track, weaving through the pine trees. I even ended up flushing a flock of wild hen turkeys out — came around a corner and started up a climb and saw about half a dozen of them on the trail ahead of me. As soon as they saw us, they headed up the hill further, and wow, can they move fast. But that was super cool, as it was my first time seeing turkeys in the wild here in AZ.

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turkeys! I promise, they’re there (circled in pink)

Shortly thereafter, the trail kind of degenerated into a bit of a singletrack rock pile. What used to be this smooth-flowing, slightly downhill trail that you could just fly down has gotten super-rocky, to where it’s impossible to really make time on. At that point, I hopped off and started hiking, with Atti trucking along cheerfully behind me. (Cristina runs and hike with him all the time, so on singletrack trails, you can clip your reins to the saddle and take off in the lead, and he’ll follow right along behind.) I know it was probably only a couple of miles, but it felt longer, and it was a major relief to pop back out to one of the checkpoints we had gone through earlier, back out onto forest road. It may be road, but we could finally move out again! Both boys were more than happy to make up some time here and kicked into a trot, then canter. We were able to make pretty short work of the several miles of road between checkpoints before hopping onto another singletrack trail. Fortunately, this one was in better shape, and aside from slowing for a few sections of rocks early on, we were able to make much better time.

That singletrack spit us back out onto another forest road, right before the last vet check — a pulse and go style of check. We brought them in nice and easy, let them drink, both pulsed down and trotted out for the vet, and then they sent us on our way — only 7 miles to the finish, and literally all downhill from here. Another rocky section of trail put from the check, and then we were on one of my favorite trail sections. It’s smooth singletrack, and it switchbacks down the side of a canyon, all the way down to the bottom. It’s really trottable, and super fun on a nimble horse. Atti knows this trail really well, and he flew down it. By the time we reached the bottom, both boys were firmly in “going home” mode, and it took absolutely no encouragement to keep them moving. There’s another bit of road section, and then the last two miles from camp heads across open pasture, into a wash, and then back into open pasture, following cow paths right back into camp.  I’m pretty sure Atti would have galloped in if I let him, but I kept him to a smart trot the whole way in, and we crossed the finish line right at 5:15 pm.

After he tanked up at the finish line water trough, we vetted through right away, my heart in my throat the whole time after my finish line pull at this ride in 2017. But no worries this time — Atti trotted out beautifully, good scores, and we were officially finished! Took him back to the trailer and got him untacked, wrapped legs, tucked into a fleecy cooler, and settled him in front of a huge pile of hay.

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Finished! Sound, happy pone and tired, happy rider.

I had perfect timing — once Atti was all taken care of, it was just in time for ride dinner and awards. For all 50-mile finishers, they hand out beautiful buckles. I earned my first buckle at this ride in 2009 on Mimi, and now my second one a decade later.

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By the time awards wrapped up, it was getting late enough I decided to stay in camp for the night rather than tackle the 2-hour drive home…and I had the sofa bed and a hot shower on offer again, so I spent the rest of the evening talking horses, ride strategy, AERC politics, and more horses with Troy and Claire.

Atti was bright-eyed and still talking to me the following morning, and looked good when I took him for a leg stretch first thing. He was also quite happy to be clean-up crew for the extra grain as I worked on cleaning out my crew bag and getting camp packed up. It didn’t take too long to get everything in order, load up, say good-byes, and head down the road. Dropped off Atti and the trailer, got him settled, then headed back down to the Valley.

This year has been light on the ride happenings for me, with a lot of ups and downs in regards to plans and horses, so it felt really good to get this one on the books and have it be so successful, and I’m grateful to Cristina for once again entrusting me with her special pony.

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photo by John Kordish

Heart Horses

I think anyone who has been around horses for any length of time has heard the term “heart horse.” That special horse with whom you share a special bond, an almost indescribable feeling you get when you’re around them.

I found the above video yesterday, courtesy of my Facebook feed, and I couldn’t help but tear up as I watched it. I love some of the descriptions they use…how they are “…the horse that brings out the best in you…not only teaches you to be a better rider, but a better person.”

I’d never quite heard it put into words that way, but I think that describes it really well. I can say I’ve learned something from every horse I’ve ridden, and there are very few times I’ve ever regretted climbing into the saddle…but those heart horses…they’re something special.

I got very, very lucky: my first horse is one of my heart horses. Not too many people are that fortunate right off the bat to end up with a lifetime heart horse that they keep for a couple decades and counting. Granted, I spent several years of riding lesson horses before I ever got Mimi, but some of those lesson horses did their best to try to dissuade a small, horse-crazy child from further pursuing her passion.

Fortunately, there were enough good ones — the priceless schoolmasters — that kept me in the saddle and kept me going. But until that first time I climbed onto Mimi’s back, I didn’t know a horse could make me feel that way. The naughty ones had terrified me, and the schoolmasters took care of me through the fear…but on Mimi? For the first time ever on the back of a horse, I felt fearless. Together, we could go anywhere, do anything…we could fly.

Of course, that feeling didn’t always exist…for the next couple of years, there was a steep learning curve of young rider + young pony, with more than one session that ended in tears (since I was too young to curse at the time). But I always clung to that feeling I had on our initial ride together, knowing what was possible.

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together, we can fly

Do we get more than one heart horse in life? I certainly like to think so, or hope so. I’ve gotten along well with pretty much all of the catch horses I’ve ridden, have clicked with a few of them, and yes, have even felt that same “together, we can fly” feeling with one.

So, what is it about a heart horse that makes them special? Everyone is probably going to have their own answer for that. It may not necessarily involve logic. In fact, if you sat down and made a pros and cons list of that horse’s characteristics, there’s probably a subheading somewhere on that list of “All The Reasons This Is A Bad Idea.” But there’s a reason they’re called “heart horses” and not “brain horses,” because while the brain is chewing over logic, the heart is daydreaming of the most recent Magical Moment with that horse.

It may not even take much. Half an arena length of a perfectly balanced, floating canter. A whiskery nuzzle against your cheek to sop up tear tracks. Whatever silly shenanigans they’ve most recently come up with (such as why my 26-yr-old pony has suddenly reverted back to her juvenile behavior of destroying her fly masks on a weekly basis?!?).

Or it’s something huge, like such a feeling of confidence and connection that you have to curb the impulse to jump on their bare back and head off to parts unknown. The forgiveness and trust they extend, even when you’ve done things that should have broken it. The lessons they are gracious enough to teach. Knowing when they absolutely need to take care of their rider.

Large or small, those moments all add up into a wonderful kaleidoscope of memories and feelings that envelope you, and you want to laugh, and smile, and cry all at the same time, because it’s a feeling that’s hard to compare to anything else.

One of my favorite tights companies, PerformaRide, recently released their 2019 limited edition range of tights and accessories, and this year’s theme is “Empower.” Four prints/designs, each with a different animal as a totem of an element of personal empowerment and the feelings we have in the saddle. Flamingo: Graceful; Tiger: Power; Wolf: Courage; Horse: Freedom. I really can’t think of a better way to distill down the essence of what I feel in the saddle than that.

For sure I’m more graceful dancing up the trail with my horse than when I’ve shuffled the same trail on my own two feet. Power? We all know the notion that we can physically control a 1000-pound flight animal is laughable…but the true power comes from being in a partnership with said 1000-pound flight animal, and them trusting me enough to let me guide them. “In riding a horse, we borrow freedom.” Nothing more needs said, other than to celebrate the feeling of cantering through the desert, with nothing but the sound of hoofbeats, snorting nostrils, and the wind whispering past your ears. And courage…it’s taken a lot of courage to get me in the saddle on many occasions. But in return, I’ve seen that courage come back to me, with that incredible, “take on the world and fly” feeling.

Are they perfect? Hahahaha…no. See above about the “teaching you to be a better rider.” And better horseperson. And how to think outside the box. How to question the norm. What to do when “what you’ve always done” doesn’t work. They also make me want to be better. To figure out the why behind a behavior or other challenge, and figure out what they might be trying to tell me. To better my skills, my knowledge, my communication. I’ve learned better emotional control, and impulse control. I’ve learned to let go, trust the horse more, and to not micromanage. To pick my battles. That those extraordinary horses in life may comes with a few extras quirks, shenanigans, and speed bumps in the road.

To those special, special horses who have left your hoofprints permanently embedded in my heart…thank you. For everything. The good moments, and the bad. The times I’ve wanted to scream or cry, and the times I’ve wanted to shout from the rooftops. The life lessons. The mane to cry in. The whiskery muzzle to smooch. The shenanigans, the laughter, the headaches, the heartaches. All of it has shaped my life, and contributed to the building blocks of who I am.

Your turn, readers…Let’s hear about your heart horse(s) and celebrate these special equines in our lives!

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